The Gloria Naylor Archive

I am beyond thrilled to learn of The Gloria Naylor Archive!

Gloria Naylor with her archival donation at Sacred Heart University. Photo taken by Tracy Deer-Mirek, 2009. (photo from The Gloria Naylor Archive site)

This extensive repository of Naylor’s work has been a joint labor of love, respect, and honor between Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut (where Naylor was awarded an honorary degree in 1994) and Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Suzanne Edwards, associate professor of English and director of the Humanities Center at Lehigh, explains:

“It’s this incredible resource, but it was also a resource that I didn’t see people engaging with in scholarship on Naylor. The materials weren’t easily accessible, and Sacred Heart didn’t have the staff or resources to digitize it.”

As a result, Edwards recommended a partnership that would “make the archive more accessible to fans of Naylor’s work, to teachers who are teaching her novels at the college level, on the secondary level, and to scholars who might find it difficult to make a trip to Fairfield”(Hochbein).

The results: a rich and expanding digital archive, as well as an invite to those doing research involving Naylor to schedule an appointment if they would like to engage with materials in person. (Before scheduling a trip, know that the physical materials belonging to the archive are back at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut as of 2023.)

This passage from The Gloria Naylor Archive mission statement is a reminder that archives not only serve as preservation, but create access to critical material for today’s consideration and beyond:

“Thus, we approach the Archive not only as a record of the past, but also as a movement toward new communities and different futures. In this sense, we take our cue from Naylor’s novels, like Mama Day, in which past, present, and future are mutually transformative. Written between 1981 and 2010, Naylor’s published works and her private papers offer fresh insights into pressing contemporary political issues today. For instance, her published and unpublished writings speak to issues of mass incarceration and police violence, migration and gentrification, religion and sexuality, racism and sexism in higher education, the enduring legacies of enslavement and colonization in North America, capitalism and globalization, as well as the power of Black joy, cultural traditions, and resistance.”

Fortunately, Gloria Naylor donated her manuscripts, research notes, outlines, letters and more to Sacred Heart University, leading to a prescient partnership with Lehigh University, ultimately creating an invaluable resource for us all.

The Women of Brewster Place

It seems Gloria Naylor had a serious knack for transformation. She illuminated the potential and strength in entities deemed by others unimportant, hopeless and out of reach. Take Brewster Place, the central setting in her first novel, a run down, isolated housing project, blocked from the rest of the thriving city by a solid brick wall. In this first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, Naylor traces the lives of seven black women who end up calling Brewster Place home, women “whose support of one another enables them to survive despite crushing poverty and personal tragedy”(Perry 217).

Gloria Naylor transforms the home, a typically mundane space assigned to women, “washing clothes, preparing meals, and diapering babies”(Montgomery 19), by revealing its bonding aspects, the elements that make home an indisputable foundation and sanctuary, wherever it is.

The Women of Brewster Place begins with the spotlight on a young, unwed, pregnant black woman, Mattie Michaels, who, through her unwavering perseverance, becomes a pillar of strength for the women around her. Haven’t we all known these women, those who hold power deep within and in sharing this strength with their community become the center of something so sustaining and vital, it’s transformative? 

Gloria Naylor is “not so much concerned with restrictions associated with life in the city as she is with the creative ways that the folk mount a challenge to authoritarian rule”(Montgomery 2). And challenges run rampant on Brewster Place. But the image of Mattie Michaels, the matriarch on the block, rocking Ciel in her arms after her child dies, is one I will never forget. The nurturing power of women to help heal one another, (and clearly from the quote below there is an obscene amount of trauma to manage) through mutual knowing and understanding, transcends time and truly stuns in this scene:

“Ciel moaned. Mattie rocked. Propelled by the sound, Mattie rocked her out of that bed, out of that room, into a blue vastness underneath the sun and above time. She rocked her over the Aegean seas so clean they shone like crystal, so clear the fresh blood of sacrificed babies torn from their mother’s arms and given to Neptune could be seen like pink froth on the water. She rocked her on and on, past Dachau, where soul-gutted Jewish mothers swept their children’s entrails off laboratory floors. They flew past the spilled brains of Senegalese infants whose mothers had dashed them on the wooden sides of slave ships. And she rocked on” (qtd. in Montgomery 17).

I’d like to share this scene in its entirety, but for the sake of keeping the length of this piece manageable, I will not. I highly recommend reading the novel. The Women of Brewster Place television miniseries (1989) that Oprah Winfrey produced and starred in is worth the watch too, although, as usual, not in lieu of the novel.

As inspiring as the ending of this story feels, where the women of Brewster Place are breaking down the wall, dismantling it brick by brick, it’s a bit of a downer knowing how desperately such collective action is still needed today. It seems the only way to transform systemic discrimination remains fiercely tackling it piece by piece.

Gloria Naylor was the daughter of sharecroppers who migrated from Robinsonville, Mississippi to Harlem, New York to provide more opportunity for their children. Gloria slowly developed from a shy, unsure girl and young woman to one with a clear purpose: to allow the stories that haunted her to be told. This purpose became clearer when, in college, Gloria was introduced to the likes of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, black women writers she didn’t know existed. Astounded, she realized that perhaps the stories she had to share, those stories scribbled in her journal, were indeed valuable. Her novel The Women of Brewster Place received the 1983 National Book Award for First Novel. A black feminist writer was born.

Mama Day

By the time Gloria Naylor wrote her the third novel, Mama Day (1988), she was a master, able to infuse the story with such richness, connection and love that the reader is enveloped in a state of amazement while reading. This spell involves the “spiritual vision, or more accurately, third sight, that empowers Mama Day” (51).

The manifestation of the matriarchal lineage in Mama Day creates a dizzying suspension in time, with dubious connections to the past, tied to current happenings, along with the struggle and hope for the future. Sometimes it is hard to decipher exactly what is going on and you are left to decide for yourself what you see, hear, understand and believe. As the narrator says, “Truth is never fixed”(38).

This novel is set on Willow Springs, a fictional rendition of one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, “a uniquely maternal island paradise that defies geographic limits”(38).

Gloria Naylor explains that as a reader, “You choose which side you’re going to come down on. The story’s told from three perspectives. You have to choose which to accept.” She continues,

“We accept the magic of love. And then, from there, I take you to the last frontier. That’s where there are indeed women who can work with nature and create things which have not been documented by institutions of science, but which still do happen. So the book’s an exploration of magic”(Perry 232-33).

Mama Day’s third generation female character, Cocoa, must travel a “journey to wholeness” which requires a dangerous trek deep inside and a bold fight to survive and Mama Day, her great aunt, is the one empowered to guide her through this critical transformation. Ultimately Mama Day’s healing powers are transferred to Cocoa: “A face ready to go in search of answers, so at last there ain’t no need for words as they lock eyes over the distance.”

In her work, The Fiction of Gloria Naylor: Houses and Spaces of Resistance, Maxine Lavon Montgomery says,

Mama Day thus disrupts colonial beliefs rooted in notions of white patriarchal dominance and works to create another narrative space – a liminal home- where a new subject and text can materialize”(52).

Read the magical Mama Day, please. 

The Meanings of a Word

I chose to explore Gloria Naylor because of her essay, The Meanings of a Word(1986). I had used this essay as a model in the first-year writing course I’d taught for years. What we, by naming our project Nasty Women Writers, and others are doing with the misogynistic use of the word nasty reminded me of what Naylor talks about in her essay.

In the second paragraph, Gloria Naylor explains,

“Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power.”

When people agree on a word’s meaning and use it accordingly, it wields power. People can alter the meaning of a word by taking possession of it, as Naylor’s community did in the 1950s with the word nigger, transforming its meaning in various contexts, steering this word away from one of utter dehumanization. In the essay, Naylor describes how her extended family seized this word, formerly by consensus one of the most hateful, hurtful words in the English language, and adopted it as one they used among their own community, agreeing upon alternative meanings, meanings they determine for themselves, not ones heaped upon them or leveled against them. And nasty, a word Donald Trump hurled at Hillary Clinton, now by way of new consensus, to many depicts a desirable, courageous trait of speaking the truth. 

1996

As I continued looking into Gloria Naylor, I questioned where she had gone. She seemed to disappear, without much available about her grand plans of producing her own film and theater adaptations of Mama Day and Bailey’s Cafe (Naylor’s fourth novel). I then discovered 1996 (2005), a fictional memoir Naylor penned describing a horrendous experience of being surveilled by the NSA (National Security Association).

1996 (a play on Orwell’s 1984) is her character’s account of this nightmare, explaining  why and how the NSA carried this out. Naylor describes her character writing 1996 in longhand in a public library, the only place where she was free of invasion. Many question how much of what Naylor includes in 1996 happened to her, but what is not in question is the importance of her warning about the frequency and pervasiveness of surveillance activity. 

Earlier on Naylor had said, “Bottomline: I need a warm, quiet place to work”(Perry 241), but according to 1996, this was not to be. Every last bit of her character’s (and perhaps her) privacy is invaded and with technology we now know exists. Whatever did actually happen to Naylor seems to have taken a toll. Gloria Naylor died of a heart attack in 2016, at the age of 66.

The mixed reception and debate over this last work of Naylor’s should not overshadow who she was, what she stood for, her accomplishments and what her works offer us well into the 21st century. Her ability to transform others and the world through her work continues, along with Bailey’s Cafe, a vibrant community arts center in Brooklyn, New York

In the words of Naylor, “Not only is your story worth telling, but it can be told in words so painstakingly eloquent that it becomes a song.”

Gloria Naylor is a #Nasty Woman Writer, not to be missed or dismissed.

©Maria Dintino 2024

Works Cited

Hochbein, Kelly. “A More Accessible Archive: Showcasing the Work of Writer Gloria Naylor.” Lehigh News, 28 June 2019. https://www2.lehigh.edu/news/a-more-accessible-archive-showcasing-the-work-of-writer-gloria-naylor

Montgomery, Maxine Lavon. The Fiction of Gloria Naylor: Houses and Spaces of Resistance. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2010.

Perry, Donna. Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out. Rutgers University Press, 1995.